Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Persistence Of 'The Persistence Of Memory'

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931, MoMA, New York.
Of great and popular works of art, it is one of the greatest and one of the most popular.
Of great artists, it is one of his greatest works.
Of strange art, it is one of the strangest.
Salvador Dali is one of the most famous modern artists of all time and many of his artworks can be identified to be his even by an untrained eye. But he's also one of the forged artists in the world. The Persistence of Memory, completed in 1931 and housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, draws audiences even as it repels them. You want to engage the piece, there is just enough one can recognize but not enough to "understand it." This post is in response to a reader's request last September.
Salvador Dali and fellow artist Man Ray in Paris, 1943.
There are many approaches to this work, so I am playfully going to give you several; all will be utterly different readings and I hope by doing this you will be liberated when viewing art so you do not feel that there is a right way of looking at art and you won't hesitate to begin building your own interpretations.
Let's begin.
The first approach we are going to play with is the Deconstruction.
Loosely defined, because that is the only way you can define deconstruction, it works to show how art undermines itself, it is always in a state of self-contradiction. In The Persistence of Memory, then, we can take the title word "persistence," and put against the clocks in the piece and say, that the clocks are memory, because memory exists within a time frame, and because the clocks are in a state of decomposition,  melting and flabby, it's not just that there is no persistence of memory, but that memory itself is not even possible. That is the purpose of the red watch case in the lower, left corner, covered with ants: no matter how hard we "work" (the ants) to remember something, the possibility of remembering is sealed off (the closed case).  
Now, let's try a Marxist understanding of the piece.
The Marxist perspective is very handy because it deals with, not only class struggle, but all materialism, anything that is material either has a value or does not (and this is simplified but this is merely a demonstration) and is in possession of someone or not. In The Persistence of Memory, the clocks are the material: because pocket watches are a luxury item, even family heirlooms from one generation of upper class men to their sons in the next generation of the upper-class. The "platform" upon which the tree rests and the flat blue platform in the upper, right region of the painting represent class standing and classes above the proletariat, or the poor worker, symbolized by the humanoid fish in the center. The worker ants, trying to get the watch case open, are the workers trying to get into an upper class, a more stable economic position, but it is sealed off to them.
While the upper class can bequeath watches to their children, the poor, lower class has nothing but the barren wasteland in the rest of the painting, there is no viable future wherein the burden of the upper class (the watch laid atop of the humanoid figure in the center) is crushing the poor workers and they can't get out from underneath the weight; whereas time works in favor of the upper-class, time works against the poorer class. (Consequently, I would never consider myself a Marxist, however, one of my favorite posts has been Leisure Hours and Victorian Consumption, where I do a material explication of a painting of two little girls in red dresses).
Now, let's turn to a Feminist approach.
There are many ways to incorporate a gender reading in the painting, and I will briefly explore two of them. First, the ants on the reddish watch are ruled by a female queen and the attempts at the workers trying to get the watch open, which not only symbolizes "memory" but history as well, just as the ants cannot get into the sealed watch, so women cannot gain access to his-story and the real political power which would enable women to exert influence and shape the world; women not being included in the political process is exactly what leads to the barrenness of the landscape (because fertility is associated with females) and men, represented by the humanoid figure in the center, are dying because of the bad historical decisions they have made (the melting clock atop the figure).
Here is a second Feminist approach, based on the conflict between "softness" and "hardness."
Dali traditionally has that opposition buried within his works, between the softness of the female body and the hardness of the male body. The figure in the center is actually a female political presence being born into a world that is barren but full of possibilities: in 1929, women "were officially recognized to be persons" by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain which allowed for women to hold political office. Woman has finally entered onto the world stage of politics. Women were also making solo flights around the world, and women entering into traditionally held areas of power and skill held by men mean that the platforms in The Persistence of Memory will no longer be uneven, but leveled out as women achieve more and more.
The masculine and feminine traits in the figure illustrates how masculine women have become because of men's ruling, but it is growing to a more natural state of womanhood, symbolized by the ants, led by a queen who are working to open the watch case that is not sealed off, rather, it represents the future, and since the ants are on the watch, the future belongs to women who will re-do and re-make the political landscape created by men (the "hard" mountains in the distance) because water (the feminine) wears down rock, and the shore line in the background will eventually become the foreground through gradual political revolution in women's favor. (I have never been a Feminist or done Feminist readings of art before, so these are just two possible examples).
And now, for the New Historicism approach.
Actually, this is only going to be an approach to the New Historicism approach; New Historicism relies heavily on research--which is one of the reasons I love it, I love doing research--but I don't have the time to invest in it for this example. First, a historical approach is best because the clocks symbolize history and memory, as invoked by the title, invites us to remember lessons from history. 1931, the year The Persistence of Memory was finished is the key point, because in 1929, the Great Depression started and the economic losses of the collective world is why the landscape is so barren.
The figure in the center is in the center because, on the world stage in the early 1930's, Joseph Stalin was not center-stage but should be, because his methods of collectivization would alter the balance of power in the world after it altered the Soviet Union. All the elements of World War II which would shortly begin, were being put into place in the early 1930's (the Great Depression would help Hitler's Nazi Socialist party) and The Persistence of Memory is a warning that, if we do not remember what happened in World War I, when there was trench warfare and millions died directly and indirectly because of the war, we are doomed to repeat it again.
Hopefully, these demonstrations of theoretical frame works provide you with examples of different, yet fruitful readings, and how perspective can be achieved all on the same work of art, by shifting focus from one aspect to another. There is a difference between Surrealist art and Abstract art: sur-real art has an element of the "real" in it, there are elements you can recognize although it won't make much "sense." Abstract art, on the other hand, as a general rule, abstracts reality so it is still reality although there is nothing recognizable on the surface as reality, you have to dig for it, which usually puts it on the level of the inner-reality, even mysticism (this, again, is simplification, but it is accurate).
Black Square, Kazimir Malevich, circa 1913; abstract art.
I usually choose a moral critique of art based on iconography and, for The Persistence of Memory, I am going to employ another theory as my vehicle: Reader Response criticism. Reader response focuses on the role of the reader/audience and acknowledges that when a person approaches a work of art, they have experiences and knowledge they bring with them that will aid or hamper their ability to engage the art (the implied or the informed reader).
Diego Velazquez, Crucifixion.
I have a long history of education in art, including knowledge of Dali so, in my approach to his work, it is inevitable that I apply what I know to understand the art; for example, that the Crucifixion above by fellow-Spaniard Diego Velazquez, hung above Dali's mother's bed when he was growing up which influenced this Crucifixion Dali completed (below) after a re-conversion to Catholicism later in life.
The Christ of St. John of the Cross, Dali.
What is most important, for my understanding and engagement with The Persistence of Memory, is the shaping of the mountains in the background: in traditional icons of saints, mountains are standard symbols for depicting the spiritual struggle of the saint and the saint's ascent in wisdom and holiness. The regrettable term for this stylized mountain of medieval art is "cheese block," because they usually look like mis-shapened blocks of cheese.
Icon of St. Francis of Assisi.
In the background of The Persistence of Memory, are the same type of mountains (but with, one might say, the advantage of Renaissance perspective applied). The clocks are present only in the foreground of the painting to symbolize temporal time, the time we spend here on earth, but they are "melted" or of no use because The Persistence of Memory illustrates for us the meeting of the eternal shores on the shoreline of the temporal world, and clocks and watches are useless at the threshold of the eternal.
The dead tree is the opposite of the tree of the Cross, it's the tree upon which Judas the betrayer hung himself, and Judas' concern with earthly goods and political power is symbolized by the watch which, like withering grass fading away, cannot withstand the passage of time even though it measures time. On the same "level" as Judas' betrayal is the red, covered watch with the ants; ants are analogous to workers, but not fruitful productivity. In the Bible, it is the bee who produces honey and the sweet honeycomb that represents fruitful earthly labors, but the ant's labor only serves the purpose of helping him survive the winter. So the ants on the watch is a play on people who are not "watchful" of how they spend their time on laboring for the fruit that does not last, instead of those who are vigilant and ascend the mountain in the background.
The painting is divided into three parts: the busy foreground, where all the material reality is located; the upper right background where the mountain is and the blue slate in the upper, left background. The foreground depicts a humanoid figure that has turned into a monster because it has not remembered what its purpose on earth was (so time has become a detriment rather than a blessing) and the dirt under the figure is the waste of their existence. Instead of becoming a "fisher of men," as Christ commanded us, the person has lost their identity (failed to realize their destiny in Christ) and has become an animal because they lived according to earthly standards not those of the eternal (this is a similar thesis in Fellini's 1960 arthouse film La Dolce Vita).
The second region of the painting is the mountain area.
Importantly, there is a reflection of the mountain in the water below, and that symbolizes the reflective aspect of the spiritual life, the "desert fathers," where they stripped themselves of all earthly priorities and give themselves to the eternal. The third part of the painting is the blue slate, the state of wisdom bridging the material foreground and the spiritual labors in the background. There is a small "boulder" beside the platform because the earthly will always weigh upon them and try to turn them back from where they have set their sites, but they have achieved a level or status of wisdom and holiness.
Photograph of Dali, 1939.
Each perspective has its advantages and disadvantages, and in the hands of those who are trained and well-versed in how to use the tools of the theory, they would, I am confident, produce far more interesting readings, but the point is, an ambiguous work of art such as The Persistence of Memory is meant to be fun and create dialogue, not just between all the audience members but also between you and the art.